Outdoor activities in Mongolia have the potential to serve as a cornerstone of its tourism industry

In February 2014 Mongolia’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism – now the Ministry of Environment, Green Development and Tourism (MEGDT) – introduced a new tourism slogan: “Mongolia, Nomadic by Nature”. The tourism tagline was commissioned by the government and developed by CNN’s Tourism Advertising Solutions and Knowledge Group in preparation for Mongolia’s turn as the official partner country of the Internationale Tourismus-Börse (ITB) Berlin 2015, the world’s largest tourism and travel trade fair.

Nomadic by Nature

In addition to referencing Mongolia’s traditional nomadic culture and history, the slogan was designed in part to highlight the country’s numerous one-of-a-kind outdoor adventure tourism products. Indeed, Mongolia’s unique natural features are perhaps the nation’s most important assets in terms of expanding the tourism sector in the coming years. The MEGDT, other government agencies and private sector tourism operators alike are well aware of the importance of marketing the country on the strength of its reputation as an off-the-beaten-track adventure destination.

“Mongolia, in general, is an extremely niche market, and is particularly well-suited for active visitors looking for unique experiences in nature,” D. Altanbagana, the executive director of Active Adventure Tours, a local operator, told OBG. “The private sector has known this for a long time, and the government is getting on board with it now.”

The outdoor and adventure segment encompasses a variety of activities, including trekking and hiking, fishing, hunting, bird-watching, horseback riding, mountaineering, mountain biking and a variety of desert-based activities, such as camel-back tours, among many others. At the same time, a concentrated effort to attract visitors to Mongolia during the long cold season, which runs from approximately October though May each year, draws on tourism products from each of the aforementioned categories. “Mongolia’s adventure sports offerings are extremely diverse,” said B. Indraa, the director of the governing board of the Mongolia National Tourism Organisation (MNTO). “Marketing this diversity effectively around the world is a challenge, but is considered to be integral to the future of tourism here.”

Natural Features

The population was just over 3m as of early 2015, according to the National Statistical Office of Mongolia. With a surface area of 1.56m sq km, the country is the world’s second-largest landlocked nation – after Kazakhstan – and the 19thlargest nation overall. According to the 2010 census, Mongolia had an overall population density of 1.76 people per sq km, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth.

The nation is home to a diversity landscapes and climates. These include, broadly, the Altai Mountain range, which runs south-east across the nation, the steppe (rolling grassy plains) in the east and the Gobi desert in the south. Natural features include sand dunes, huge swathes of wild grassland, thousands of square kilometres of forested area and, in the mountains, permanent glaciers and a series of high peaks.

Adventure Tourism

Adventure and outdoor sports are a rapidly growing segment. A number of operators offer luxury hunting, fishing or photography package tours, for example, which include lodging in high-end gers (traditional Mongolian felt tents) in remote areas. Multi-stage and weekend horseback trips are increasingly popular, as are cross-country jeep and motorcycle tours, the latter of which grew in popularity after the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor rode across Mongolia on a motorcycle for the UK documentary television show “Long Way Round”. Mountaineering is increasingly considered to be a viable niche tourism market among local operators. “We have high mountains and a dry climate here,” said the MNTO’s Indraa. “We could eventually serve as a training destination for competitive climbers, for example.”

Many of these activities are high-risk, high-yield affairs. Professional mountaineers, for example, are often sponsored by corporations and spare no expense on expeditions. Mountain biking, which is also considered to be a relatively high-yield activity, has become popular among visitors from East Asian countries in recent years, according to local operators. Visitors from the US and Europe are increasingly interested in bird-watching expeditions that take them to remote parts of the nation. “A large number of migrating birds stop in Mongolia, including a handful of rare cranes and other species,” said Indraa. “French, British and Japanese visitors account for a large percentage of demand for ornithological tours, and they are willing to spend time and resources to get to distant areas.”

Sun, Sand & Dinos

The Gobi desert covers much of the southern part of Mongolia and is one of the largest deserts in the world. The region has been a popular stop on most package tours and independent itineraries in Mongolia for decades. As demand for tourism in the Gobi region has ramped up in recent years, in particular, the area has become an increasingly important component of the sector’s long-term development strategy. According to government data, there are around 20 tourist camps in the Gobi region, and these are visited by 20,000 to 40,000 tourists each year. There are currently three major attractions in the Gobi region for tourists: the Khonghoryn Els (Singing Sands) and the Yolyn Am (Valley of the Eagles), both of which are located in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, which, at 27,000 sq metres, is Mongolia’s largest national park, and the Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs), a series of sandstone cliffs that feature an enormous number of dinosaur fossils.

While these three destinations are expected to remain at the centre of most tourist itineraries for the foreseeable future, expanding the number of attractions in the Gobi region remains a key goal. Perhaps most importantly, in 2013 the government announced that it planned to build up the dinosaur-related tourism segment in the coming years. The Gobi is the site of a spate of major dinosaur fossil finds over the past century, including, perhaps most famously, the discovery of a number of dinosaur egg fossils by the American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s. Work in this area is ongoing, with a number of paleontological expeditions currently under way in the Gobi. While many of the most impressive finds were transferred to collectors and museums outside Mongolia, in recent years a wide variety of major dinosaurrelated artefacts have been returned to the country. In July 2014, for example, the US announced that it would return the fossilised remains of more than 18 dinosaurs to Mongolia, after breaking up a fossil smuggling ring based in the US state of Virginia. As of March 2015 Mongolia was in the midst of converting the former VI Lenin Museum in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, into a Central Dinosaur Museum to display these new acquisitions. This is expected to have a knock-on effect on interest in dinosaur-related tourism in the Gobi.

Off Season

The Gobi region is expected to play a major role in the government’s long-term strategy to boost tourism during the winter months, when the industry has traditionally shut down entirely. “Traditionally, the tourist season here begins in May and ends just a few months later in September or October,” said Altanbagana. “Extending this short season is one of the biggest challenges currently facing all Mongolian tour operators. We are working together on this now.” The Gobi’s climate is slightly more forgiving than much of the rest of the country, where temperatures regularly drop to below -40°C during the long winter months. Consequently, tours to the Gobi begin earlier and end later in the season than elsewhere.

Private tour operators and local authorities have launched winter festivals and other events in recent years to attract tourists during the off-season. The Thousand Camels Festival takes place early in the year in the Gobi region and includes a wide variety of events centred on the two-humped Mongolian Bactrian camel. The festival, which was organised by local camel herders and tour companies, includes camel polo matches, racing, milk, and other camel-related products and activities. The Lake Khövsgöl Ice Festival, meanwhile, takes place annually in March in the northern province of Khövsgöl, near the Siberian border. Activities take place largely on the lake, which freezes over during the winter. Festivalgoers can enjoy ice skating, wrestling, horseracing, reindeer racing, camel-related events and a variety of cultural performances and demonstrations. Finally, the Golden Eagle Festival takes place in the province of Bayan Ulgii, in western Mongolia, and serves as a showcase for ethnic-Kazakh eagle hunters, who train hunting eagles.